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Is tough enforcement the best way to improve traffic safety?


Date: 1998-09-09

A world without traffic law enforcement would be hard to imagine, but is tougher and tougher enforcement the best way to reduce sloppy and reckless driving and improve safety?

This is one area of driving and traffic where there is no shortage of research, and this research has brought some surprising results. For example, tougher penalties for breaking the law may be less effective as deterrents than softer penalties, but with a greater chance of being caught.

And sometimes a blitz of enforcement activity can have unintended side effects. For example a well-documented crackdown on drinking and driving in the Canadian province of British Columbia in 1977 may actually have led to an increase in road deaths! (see Target Risk, Chapter 8). During the enforcement blitz, the total number of times drivers were stopped was equivalent to 30% of the number of vehicles registered in the province. A time series analysis of traffic fatalities during the period of the blitz indicated an 18% decrease in the number of alcohol-related deaths, but there was a 19% increase in total traffic deaths during the crackdown period!

Risk psychologist Gerald Wilde theorizes that the phenomenon was due to a shift in risk-taking. Drivers' BACs were lowered by the enforcement action, he speculates, but there may have been a general relaxing of wariness amongst drivers who were now driving with less alcohol in their systems, and perhaps also amongst drivers who did not drink and drive but now became more complacent because of the enforcement blitz.

Traffic law enforcement has always existed in a sort of ecological balance between daily necessity and the letter of the law. Few drivers are well-informed about specifics of traffic laws in the areas in which they drive, but they do typically have a casual code of behavior that traffic sociologist J. Peter Rothe calls "informal laws." If informal laws and the enforcement of written laws get too much out of alignment there will be acrimony and hostility between the driving public and police. Understanding the importance of maintaining that balance is one of the key issues of traffic law enforcement.

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